Real Madrid emerged victorious, but not completely certain of progression, after a 3-1 victory against Napoli at the Bernabeu in the Round of 16 of the Champions League.
Lorenzo Insigne scored an early goal for the Italians but goals from Karim Benzema, Toni Kroos and Casemiro secured the comeback victory for the La Liga leaders. Napoli were underdogs going into the tie but will be disappointed to see their 18-game undefeated streak snapped.
The first 20 minutes of the match were action-packed with the hosts looking to take the game to Napoli who were happy to utilize short, quick passing as well as the pace of their front 3 to get the ball from back to front quickly.
Madrid almost took the lead within 20 seconds of kick-off when Ronaldo played a low cross from the left to an unmarked Benzema but his first-time shot was too close to Reina who punched it clear.
Insigne gave Napoli the lead with a screamer from 30 yards out. Hamsik spotted the striker’s run down the middle and his perfectly weighted through ball was right in the Italian’s path. He unleashed a first-time curler low to Navas’ left to make it 1-0. Upon replay it was clear that Navas was way off his line and was not positioned well as the shot wasn’t the most powerful effort.
Benzema had a few chances to equalize soon after but couldn’t make the most of it. First, a mazy run from Ronaldo down the left in the 12th minute ended up with a good cross to an unmarked Benzema but his glancing header was weak and didn’t even end up on target. A minute later James curled a cross in from the right and Benzema was able to generate more power on this header but it was over the bar.
Madrid were pressing hard in an attempt to draw level which resulted, at times, in 4 or 5 players in between Napoli’s defense and midfield. In the 15th minute, Zielinski broke through this line and had about 35 yards of empty space due to the Madrid defense desperately tracking back to mark Hamsik, Callejon, Mertens and Insigne. Unfortunately, the Pole couldn’t pick the right pass and the move fizzled out.
This would prove to be costly as Benzema equalized 3 minutes later, fittingly enough with a header. Carvajal unleashed a perfectly accurate cross from the right with the outside of his boot to find Benzema on the edge of the 6-yard box. The Frenchman’s glancing header over former Madrid man Raul Albiol was perfectly guided past Reina’s right hand to make it 1-1.
— Nino (@Nino_416) February 15, 2017
Slowing the Pace
Madrid stopped pressing with as many players after this point which slowed down the pace of the game. However, they did have chances to pull ahead. In the 28th minute, Modric played Ronaldo through on goal but his left-footed shot was blasted way over the bar in a missed opportunity.
As the half wore down, Napoli were content with their away goal and focused on closing the half without conceding. Zielinski picked up a yellow in the 38th minute after chopping down a Casemiro run; the second booking of the game after Ramos was booked in the 17th minute for a foul on Diawara.
Ronaldo and James switched flanks toward the end of the half to change their strategy and it almost helped Madrid steal the lead in the 42nd through a decisive counter-attack but the post denied them.
Ronaldo started the move on the right with a quick 1-2 with Carvajal. Carvajal’s pass down the right flank gave Ronaldo the space to whip in a low cross to a charging Benzema but the Frenchman’s effort clipped the edge of the post and went out.
The half was all Madrid as they enjoyed 12 shots to Napoli’s 2. However, wastefulness was the theme of the half with Benzema having 5 shots from good positions but only managing to score once. The game was also a midfield-dominated game at this point with Modric and Diawara having the most possession for their respective teams.
Two goals in the first 10 minutes of the second half closed out the game for Madrid who continued with more fluidity in their frontline.
In the 49th minute, Ronaldo went on another mazy run down the right touchline before beating Koulibaly and entering the box. He pulled the ball back to Kroos who shot first-time from the edge of the box to Reina’s lower-left hand side to give them the lead.
Toni Kroos scores a stunning goal after a wonderful Ronaldo assist!
— Newar (@DeadlyCristiano) February 15, 2017
A bolt-from-the-blue from Casemiro five minutes later would end Napoli’s hopes for salvaging anything from the game. Napoli lost the ball just outside their box with 7 Madrid players in the area. The home side tried to work the ball goalward but the defense managed to clear the ball. However, it was only as far as Casemiro who unleashed an unstoppable first-time volley which nestled itself in the corner of the goal to Reina’s right.
This seemed to take the wind out Napoli’s sails who seemingly did not want to take a wider margin back to Naples for the second leg. Madrid were happy with their two-goal cushion, but there were a few decent chances for both teams before the game finished.
Napoli had their best chance in the 68th minute when a fabulous long-range pass from Diawara found Callejon on the right. The former Madrid man laid it off first-time for Mertens but the in-form Belgian put his shot over the bar.
Five minutes later, Kroos played James through with a good pass that beat the offside the trap but Reina closed down the angle and made save with his legs from the resulting shot. Ramos was taken off for Pepe with what seemed to be a knee problem a few minutes prior.
Napoli did put the ball in the back of the net in the 81st minute but it was waived off for offside. A 20-pass move ended up with Diawara curling in a cross from the right which was headed across the face of the goal by Insigne and tapped in by Callejon who was offside. Morata was brought on for Benzema a minute later while Milik made his return from injury for Hamsik a few minutes after that.
FULL TIME: REAL MADRID 3-1 NAPOLI
Stats (according to whoscored):
20 Shots 8
51% Possession 49%
5 Corners 1
2 Yellow Cards 2
9 Fouls 12
Themes of the Game
Both teams lined up in a 4-3-3 on paper but transitioned into different line-ups for attack and defense when needed. Real Madrid would attack with a 4-3-3 but defend in a narrow, askew 4-4-2.
Ronaldo would stay up the field, at times even beyond Benzema, while James would drop deeper and Kroos would shift to the left side of the field. This was due to Napoli’s main creative outlet coming from their left flank in the form of Ghoulam, Hamsik and Insigne. By dropping deeper on their right, Madrid forced Napoli to play through the middle where their crowded midfield could win the ball back quickly and play it to their two attackers up front.
Napoli tended to focus on attacking through quick counter-attacks. As a result, they would line-up almost as a 4-2-4 when in possession with Hamsik pushing up to join the attack. Ghoulam has been their creative catalyst this season, averaging 2.5 key passes a game with over 83% passing accuracy (whoscored), so he would also push forward. In defense, they would drop deep into a 4-5-1 with a large gap between the midfield and Mertens who was isolated at times while waiting for the quick counter-attack.
This strategy paid off for Napoli for most of the first half despite the ball spending most of the time around their box. Madrid’s best chances in the first half were restricted to either quick, sudden breakaways (Benzema’s chances in the first and 42nd minute) or individual brilliance (Carvajal’s cross for the first goal) and not Ronaldo’s lethal finishing.
However, this changed as Madrid became more fluid.
Toward the end of the first half, and for the entirety of the second half, Madrid’s front 3 switched their positions around rapidly. Ronaldo and Benzema would alternate down the middle while also moving to the flanks at times while James would switch wings constantly.
The second goal was a direct result of Ronaldo switching to the right as his right-footedness enabled him to dribble right upto the touchline while James would cut inside almost every time. This provided new width to their attack which James could not on the right but could on the left due to him being left-footed.
Most of the chances in the first half were crosses to Benzema because both wide players would be forced to pull the ball back where either Zielinski, Diawara, Callejon or Insigne would add pressure forcing them to get rid of the ball.
This utilization of the players as traditional wingers paid off because of Ghoulam, Insigne and Hamsik looking to go forward. Napoli’s habit of using their left flank to create attacks left Ronaldo with time and space on the right or in the middle to take players on. Ronaldo ended up with 3/3 successful dribbles on the right, 1/1 in the middle and just 1/4 on the left to further illustrate his importance on the right.
The other obvious thing this did was confuse the Napoli defense when it came to marking due to how frequently the positional changes happened. Instead of focusing on trying to get back in the game, Ghoulam and Hysaj had more defensive duties in the second half.
As mentioned before, Napoli’s strategy at the start of the game was to sit back and hit Madrid on the counter utilizing the pace of Mertens, Callejon and Insigne as well as the passing and dribbling acumen of Hamsik and Ghoulam. This somewhat worked in the first half with Madrid committing Modric, Kroos, Carvajal and Marcelo, in addition to their front 3, to putting pressure on Napoli as they played out of the back.
Since Madrid would defend in a narrow 4-4-2, Carvajal and Marcelo would push up to press Ghoulam and Hysaj. This played into Napoli’s hands as they would utilize quick passing to get the ball out of defense and use the gaps these full backs left to move the ball upfield in the quickest possible time.
Napoli also utilized their physical presence to counter the pressing with Diawara and Koulibaly easily outmuscling the likes of Modric, Carvajal and James. Diawara especially was immense as the 19-year-old (in his 11th start of the season) had the most possession among anyone on either team.
However, Madrid countered this by allowing their front three to switch positions leading to the powerful Ronaldo bullying Diawara and Koulibaly off the ball. The latter in particular had a poor game as he was easily beaten by Ronaldo for the second goal and it was his pass that led to Madrid having the ball for the third.
As the game progressed Madrid gradually reduced their pressing which led to more even possession and territorial advantage. However, Napoli were still playing to hit Madrid on the break and with Madrid sitting back this proved to be impossible.
Player of the Match:
3 shots, 88% pass accuracy, 2 headers won, an interception and an assist. The Ballon d’or winner had a tremendous game and bagged himself an assist and was unlucky not to get more. His passing and dribbling created numerous opportunities for Madrid from both flanks. He set up Benzema for simple chances twice and Marcelo once in the 89th minute and was unfortunate to not add a goal to his collection as well.
In addition, his five successful dribbles accounted for half of Madrid’s successful dribbles and was more than the entire Napoli team at 4.
The return leg is in three weeks time on March 7. Napoli will have a tough task but do have a crucial away goal which means that a 2-0 victory will see them through on away goals. However, that will be easier said than done as Madrid have scored in every game this season.